December 3, 2007


For many Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, mere mention of the federal Works Progress Administration conjured up cartoon images of men repairing roads or building public facilities: If 10 men were working on a project, eight of them would be depicted as resting on their shovels while two worked.

But the WPA, as it was known, was a useful device to put people to work in the Great Depression. It also supported research at Johns Hopkins.

A May 1940 letter (now in the Hamburger Archives at Homewood) to Provost P. Stewart Macaulay from Lowell Reed, head of the Department of Biostatistics at the School of Hygiene and Public Health, urged the acceptance of a WPA grant that would enable Reed and his colleagues to complete quickly a survey of family records in Baltimore’s Eastern Health District. The funds, he said, would provide for the purchase of key punches “for cards covering the family enumeration.”

The survey had been completed in 1939, in cooperation with the city’s Health Department, and the information had become important in a large number of medical and epidemiological studies. Now Reed wanted to complete it, soon.

There was one hitch. WPA rules required the university to obtain a public agency as co-sponsor. No problem, said Macaulay. The State Planning Commission was willing to act in that role, and the head of the commission, he said, would not be an obstacle. He was one of Hopkins’ most distinguished faculty members, Abel Wolman, professor of sanitary engineering.

The university trustees approved the project, equivalent to a grant of about $13,000, and the cards were punched by the end of summer 1940, making the information, Reed said, “usable for other studies much earlier.”

Reed later became dean of the School of Hygiene and Public Health, vice president for both the university and the hospital and, coming out of retirement in 1953, president of the university until 1956, when he was succeeded by Milton S. Eisenhower.